Here comes the sun
Sleek new tech and designs are making solar power cooler than ever
Wed, Dec 03 2008 at 1:29 PM
The holy trinity of energy production is simple enough to understand: clean, constant and cheap. No flooding, emissions, toxic waste or noise pollution. Just power.
Producing it has been anything but simple -- but after a lot of time and research, solar power is promising to get us closer to that goal than we've ever been before, and fast. Solar power systems, also known as photovoltaic systems, generate power by energy conversion and storage in solar cells inside photovoltaic modules. Traditionally they're produced in panels that are protected from the elements with glass in the form of the most commonly encountered collection method solar panels.
Solar power systems have a compelling case in becoming the next big alternative energy source -- but their development has been halting. A quick look around the Internet reveals as many research dead ends as it does real breakthroughs, and because of soaring silicon costs, installing a photovoltaic system on a residential dwelling can cost as much or more than a luxury hybrid car. For most people, solar power just isn't as sexy. At the same time, enough sun falls on the surface of the Earth in a day to meet our global energy needs for a year -- if we could convert a portion of that every day, the effect would be life-changing for our communities and for our planet, so finding ways to improve the technology and a way to entice consumers has become the all-consuming task of the alternative energy sector.
As the science has finally started to catch up with our ambition, the results look like they could change how we power almost everything in our lives. One of the biggest problems has been efficiency: Only about 12 percent to 15 percent of the energy that hits a typical solar panel is converted into energy. But with new technologies aiming to improve those numbers and lower costs, solar power and its systems are poised to jump into the lead -- and to move from supporting roles to viable alternatives.
Companies such as MiaSolé and Nanosolar have been making technological leaps and bounds in recent years -- both are developing cheap, thin conversion technology that their investors are anticipating will help bridge the consumer divide. MiaSolé has made breakthroughs by developing high-efficiency, nonsilicon, flexible technology that approaches 20 percent conversion efficiency in lab tests. Nanosolar was named TIME magazine's No. 25 best invention of 2008. Its thin-film solar panels work on the same principles as MiaSolé's product, but Nanosolar's panels are produced as a foil that can be cut to any size and are produced by running them through something of an elaborate printing press rather than being baked like the panels with which the public is familiar. Nanosolar shocked the alternative energy market this year when it announced in August that it has raised more than $300 million for startup and production, which has it working with roughly six times as much funding as competitors.
And then there's the hot alternative energy niche within the photovoltaic market to consider: integrated solar systems. Photovoltaic systems that are flexible enough to be integrated into clothing, vehicles and building construction is where much of the research is being focused today. In these integrated systems, the photovoltaic system is a primary power source, but it's also a fundamental part of the makeup of what it's powering.
The emerging options range from streamlined roof-mounted systems to having the outside of a building completely covered in a durable and sleek solar system. Your shingles themselves could gather solar power, or you could have semitransparent panels instead of windows. The options in this market are ever-expanding, and while grid parity may not currently be a reality in the United States, as it creeps closer the companies that are already integrating this technology into their construction are poised to reap the rewards.
To really understand the widespread support behind this clean technology and its small-scale impact, one has to move outside Silicon Valley. In Kenya, solar power is a no-maintenance way to bring power to remote and isolated areas that has changed the way villages and businesses operate. Unlike traditional grid electricity, once the system is installed there are no access fees, no parts to break, no maintenance required. Solar World East Africa rents discounted light-powering solar kits to low-income Kenyans, and sells small family power packs that can provide light and give a 10-hour charge to a transistor radio. Similarly low-tech, in Ohio the Amish are the highest per capita users of photovoltaic systems. Technological decisions are made as a group, and some Amish communities have decided that because solar energy allows their communities grid independence, it's one of the best options they've found so far.
With research racing at a breakneck pace, hope and discoveries are building toward solar power becoming the best option, for low- and high-tech users alike, within the next 10 years.